"Radio? We ain't got no damn radio. We got nunchucks, though!"
After a fan-pleasing cameo in The Expendables, which was then woefully extended for the inferior sequel, we now get Arnold Schwarzenegger's fully-fledged return to the explosive genre that he helped define. The last time we saw him in a starring role was in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and The Last Stand marks the beginning of a new phase in the screen icon's legendary career.
But fans would do well to remember that after a ten year gap, even Mr. Universe needs to ease himself gently back on to the horse again.
This is a concept-movie. The suits summon Stateside the slick and stylish breakneck visionary behind the severe psycho chillers I Saw The Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters, and the off-the-scale insanity of The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, wooing him with oodles of cash and big name stars, and bestowing him with his big US debut. And, to his credit, Korean director Kim Jee-woon hammers out a slick and stylish breakneck vision that, typically true-to-form for promising foreign filmmakers getting their first Hollywood treatment, proceeds to water down his excesses, unravel his originality and provide him with a vehicle that doesn't exactly tarnish his once impressive cult credentials, but hardly buffs them up to a genre-dazzling gleam either. Think of the glory of John Woo folded-down and made likeably bland with Broken Arrow and M:i-2, and you are navigating from the right roadmap. Less doves with Jee-woon, of course.
And at the flicks, audiences were largely uninterested. When I saw it thearically, I was one of five people there. And two of them were my mates. Besides Arnie appearing on TV chat shows, there really wasn't much hype or advertising. Some would say that the film didn't deserve any, and that The Last Stand deserved to founder, but I sincerely hope that it gains a more favourable response now that it comes to Blu-ray.
When Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), an infamous and deadly drugs overlord, is spectacularly sprung from his FBI shackles during a prisoner transfer in the less showy backstreets of Las Vegas, he is outfitted with a groovy experimental super Corvette ZR1 that can perform on the ground the sort of speeds and vehicular athletics that the Red Arrows regularly accomplish in the air. Together with a gorgeous hostage – nabbed Fed beauty (the majestically named Genesis Rodriguez) - and a private army of heavily armed goons led by Peter Stormare’s vicious mercenary, Burrell, he roars south along the freeway in the hopes of getting over the border and into Mexico like a million bandidos of old. With the Feds, under the determinedly grumpy command of Forest Whitaker’s Agent John Bannister, left pretty much eating his dust, he has his men build an improvised bridge in the middle of nowhere that will aid in his bid for freedom. But, just before he reaches that middle bit of nowhere he will have to pass through the sleepy little desert hamlet of Sommerton Junction. In the olden days, this would be a quiet one-horse town that would simply look the other way when the outlaws came a-callin’ ... but now it is presided over by the duty-bound and courageous Sheriff Ray Owens, a man who is over-the-hill and enjoying the peace and tranquillity of his twilight years in a neighbourhood where the most heinous crime is a late milk delivery at the diner. After seeing enough bloodshed on the tough streets of LA, Ray likes nothing more than to massage his aching tootsies, pop a few painkillers and swig a mug of Ovaltine before beddy-byes ... but, sure enough, once the storm comes to town – his town – he refuses to hide behind his zimmer-frame. And when he learns of the thunderclap fugitive heading his way and death pays a visit close to home, he proves that old habits die hard and, together with his deputies, tools-up, stages an impromptu barricade and sets about creating a formidable last stand to keep Cortez from making his grand getaway.
You could set this story pretty much anywhere and it would still be a Western, through and through. As with every horse-opera worth its oats, courage, honour and redemption are all that stands against greed, obsession and good, old fashioned scumbaggery. Swap the prototype Corvette for a hijacked stagecoach, or the destiny-bound locomotive of yore, and the arsenal of hi-tech weaponry for six-shooters and Winchesters and the resulting Mexican stand-off is just as traditional and iconic as ever. But, if anything, the allegedly jaw-dropping car stunts are bewilderingly tame when compared to the outrageous equine action that was frequently a high-point during many a Western opus. Considering that the biggest selling-point of the movie, besides Arnie, is the car chase itself, the freeway free-for-all is rather mundane ... and the villainy, as we shall see, foolishly diluted with a queer combination of over-exposure and ill-judged nastiness. Strictly speaking, this sort of thing has been a thousand times before. And much, much better.
“How are you feeling, Sheriff?”
"Nah ... you got a way's to go, yet."
Arnie as an Arizonan sheriff called Ray Owens! You what? At least they don’t go down that lamentably awkward road that often saw poor JCVD enduring tediously shoehorned-in explanations as to why he had a strange accent. In the drawling, misfit-packed Sommerton, the big Austrian Oak is taken under the rednecks’ collective BBQ chicken wing as easily as if he was 6 feet 6 of creamy apple pie. And, just like the Yorkshire-set 60’s soapish copper drama, Heartbeat, there is a coterie of likeable deputies and locals to support this highly un-local sheriff in keeping the peace from rascally outsiders. There is a throwaway comment in which Owens refers to Cortez as “making us immigrants look bad” but the screenplay from newcomer David Knauer doesn’t waste our time and patience with any protracted explanations as to why the Sheriff of Jerkwater, USA, has a thick European growl.
Arnie is never less than engaging. There is a small degree of introspection that has been added. Just a moment of silent mourning for a fallen comrade, say, or a beer out on the porch under the stars, and that brazen, take-on-all-comers attitude has receded along with the hairline, but this is still Arnie bringing out the big guns and facing down the bad guys with all the old magnetism. He looks and moves more like Clint Eastwood now, and his timing may be a little off on occasion ... but, damn, it’s good to see him away from those cheapening stints in The Expendables.
As always, established security agencies take a thorough beating and are resolutely shown-up as being nothing more than clumsy, in-fighting red-tape lickers by Tinsel-town’s long-term fantasy champions – the have-a-go heroes caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the dogged community coppers who seize the moment to prove their worth, and the once shunned social pariahs who get one last shot at redemption and respectability. Action Cinema seems to always acknowledge that it is the “lower class” that will save the day. The suicidal detective, the retired Special Forces operative, the erstwhile vigilante, costumed or not. Established forms of authority can never do the job properly, and although the Western often posited that the sheriff or the marshal would win the day, Knauer and Jee-woon are playing the small-town law enforcer against the lax, yet rule-book governed Feds, who believe themselves vastly superior to him, yet are incontrovertibly useless by comparison. The underdog will always have his day.
And, for the first time ever, Arnie is the underdog – which is the conceit that I think you will find him employing more and more in his forthcoming adventures. Unlike Stallone, who could probably still play the top dog post his own centenary! It is also why he is surrounded by such an eclectic cast.
“I’ve got a psychopath in the Batmobile!”
Forest Whitaker just annoys me these days. Yes, he can be a fine actor ... at times. But for every Ghost Dog, there is a Vantage Point, and for every Last King of Scotland, there is a Battlefield Earth, and although he is actually quite watchable and restrained here, I can’t help thinking that the film spends far too much time with him. Whenever we cut back to the FBI investigation room the film grinds to a contrivance-littered halt. Wise-ass suspects? Check. Belligerent boss? Check. Scruffy, impish no-hoper who just happens to have the lowdown on the super-car? Check. Possibility of a spy in the camp? You bet. I truly believe that the reason why Arnie is sharing the screen with a large ensemble is because the makers knew they had to keep the pressure off of him and, thereby, allow him to settle back into that swaggering groove one step at a time. And by renting out swathes of the running time to Whitaker and Noriega, the big guy can have plenty of rest before wheezing his way through another set-piece. But, back to Whitaker for a moment. Every time the film hops back to him and his escalating dilemma over losing this high stakes captive, all tension and drama fizzles out. It’s not his fault that his character is the one who has to feed everyone else the schematics of Cortez’s dark psyche, but even saddled with bureaucratic cliché he fails to deliver the usual wits-end hissy-fits customary to butter-fingered Feds and, as such, his scenes possibly seem slower and more stumbling than they actually are.
Actors take note. Once you start getting offered the role of a harassed FBI or CIA section chief, your career is pretty much dead in the water.
So, although we have a vicious drug-baron bearing down on sleepy Sommerton like Satan with a rocket up his cloven ass, it is really quite nice just hanging with the screwball misfits who intend to make the pit-stop his final, unbreachable obstacle. Thus, even if it is fun to hear Noriega’s exotically twanged alpha-male-isms buttering-up his federal hostage, and witness his juvenile Mad Max tactics in escalating bouts of escape-and-evasion, there is a tangible loss of interest once the scene floods the interior of the speeding Corvette … and once he finally hits town for the climactic showdown there is an air of disappointment that is, perhaps, inevitable, given the combat we have already witnessed. Noriega is still very good in the cruel, yet charismatic role of Cortez. He looks like a dark-hearted Brandon Routh, all tousled and windswept and ruggedly handsome, yet shot through with an evil gleam in his eyes. Have no fear, though, his captive is certainly worth hanging on to, even at such an implausible velocity, so the cockpit exchanges do have some collateral value. What lets him down is the hackneyed and rather too mundane snippets of backstory that we get about him – they tend to build up a picture of someone totally hellish in a Keysor Soze vein, yet there is no detail that really hits home with any vengeful conviction – we fail to shiver at any of his misdeeds, no matter how foul - and the film thankfully jettisons a hugely laborious (and sadly lacklustre) tale of former depravity which can be found languishing in the Deleted Scenes section. Perversely, then, The Last Stand comes across as being quite disjointed. We see so much of Cortez and hear so much about him that his threat is right royally diminished by the time he gets to town. How much better would it have been to just hear menacing asides about him from his league of mercenaries, and in stark warnings to Ray from the jittery FBI? He would have become a true bogeyman, or at least an adversary worthy of such sweaty Marshal Will Kane build-up.
As it stands, we’ve grown too used to him to actually give a damn whether he gets away or not. And we certainly don’t fear him.
The real indication that this modern-day Western has been helmed by Korea’s cinematic enfant-terrible, is that it is quite a bizarre film in terms of thrust and mood, and this could lead to problems arising from the shifting, irregular tone of homespun eccentricity and wicked, high-impact blood-bag burstage. Remember how the comedy of Beverly Hills Cop was suddenly and shockingly cleaved asunder when the pug-nosed baddie “popped” Axel Foley’s “little buddy in Detroit” by putting a gun to the back of his head and blowing his brains out with the muzzle-flash exiting through the poor dude’s mouth? Yet, skilfully, Bruckheimer’s film maintained that essential balance between the violence and the slapstick, creating something fresh and original in the process. Here, it is not quite the same ethic because we aren’t involved in any whiplash comedy, but rather a meandering melange of character-based foible – and when the killings occur they seem far too powerful and explicit for the surrounding action. Cortez’s early slaying of an already wounded FBI agent mimics that example from Beverly Hills Cop in terms of visual clout and severity, yet the overall effect seems unjustified and overtly gratuitous this time around. I love violence in movies – as a thousand reviews will no doubt testify – and whilst I admire the graphic nature of the bodycount in this (we have a body blown to bits and another cut in two with .50 cal. machine-gunfire) from a ballistic-junkie’s point-of-view, I don’t think it sits too comfortably beside the lazy humour and light-hearted banter. Rambo 4 and The Expendables were all about the bloody mayhem. It was their very raison d’être. For all its battles and death-dealing, The Last Stand is a cosier, far more affable story and the sudden welters of brain-tissue, bodies splatteringly blasted, severed arms bouncing around, and a ferocious tendon-directed stabbing session during the finale seem to crash in from a different film altogether. Comic-book, certainly. In-keeping with the overall tone? Not exactly.
“We are not going to let that guy come through our town without a fight.”
Watching Arnie go toe-to-toe with a super-skilled badass is certainly worth waiting for, although Kim Jee-woon actually seems to drag this sequence out far too long, almost past its poetic and proper breaking point. And I think the glaringly obvious use of a green-screen background is a touch cheapskate. Still, the big street-battle that precedes it is a thunderous affair. Kudos must go to the bullet-headed thug who, acting on autopilot, just takes a running leap from a rooftop onto a chugging school-bus in the street below without a single second spent weighing up the pros and cons of such a dodgy manoeuvre. The varied weaponry adds greatly to the bone-shuddering pyrotechnics too – the juxtapositioning of sputtering vintage guns and ultra-modern hand-held death-dealers a quaint thematic metaphor for old traditions winning the day. And the film cutely and amusingly toys with as many Western conventions as it does Arnie staples. There are a few references to past glories. Although he isn’t the one who actually says it, the line “Run! Get to the diner!” is most definitely a playful take on that immortal “helicopter-based” cry from Arnie in Predator, and is sure to have you guffawing like that film’s mighty Indian scout, Billy.
As Deputy Sarah Torrence, raven-haired Jaimie Alexander is, unmistakably, gorgeous. She even makes reloading and hefting a sniper-rifle look decidedly sexy, and yet she also manages to come across as a more believable small town deputy than any number of other glamorous actresses outfitted with badge and uniform. That said though, her insanely alluring lady copper is too damn good-looking to be a law-enforcer in such a dust-ball. And the same can be said for Cortez’s alluring brunette FBI hostage riding shotgun in the uber-cool bullet car, of course. But, in a way, this sort of glamour balances out the rugged, bruise-stippled swarthiness that is also on show. Alexander returns to the Asgardian role of the warrior Lady Sif in Thor: The Dark World, and there have been rumours floating about regarding her lashing the lasso of truth as the formidable Amazonian superheroine, Wonder Woman, at some point down the line. Now that is something I’d like to see happen.
And there is no finer example of this twisted combination of bruised beauty than that of seeing Xerxes, himself, sporting sweat and stubble and a reluctant tin star in the form of pin-up boy, Rodrigo Santoro. The former Persian warlord from 300 has been dramatically reduced from his nine-feet of arrogant tyranny to a rather clichéd example of one-time hero-turned-bummed-out-town-delinquent, Frank Martinez … and much in need of some last-minute valour to redeem his Facebook status and return him to ex-girlfriend Sarah’s good books.
The flat-tyre visage of Jackass alumnus Johnny Knoxville brings some more marmite to the mix. Love him or loathe him, he provides the monkey for the back of many productions, but he is certainly no stranger to this particular macho market. Having already starred opposite another rough-hewn town sheriff with something to prove in Walking Tall, with Dwayne Johnson as his “Rock” to cling to, Knoxville knows how to buddy-up with the genuine tough guys. But he more than holds his own here as Sommerton’s outcast, semi-gypsy gun-nut, Lewis Dinkum. Scuttling around like Bill Oddie circa The Goodies, he gurns and grimaces and gawks, shinning up street-lamps like a monkey, the costume additions of a big daft fur-hat with huge floppy, hang-down ears and a pair of vintage flying goggles a touch too obvious in asserting his Stooge-like maverick mentality. But he is still good value as the unorthodox and unauthorised proprietor of an ultimately very convenient gun museum just on the fringe of town.
This Magnificent Five – six, if you a crack-shot granny – flesh the conflict out with some aplomb, and definitely add a jovially human veneer to the battle with the faceless, personality-devoid cartel of mercs.
But the downside from a character and performance perspective rests indisputably at the feet of Peter Stormare.
Hardly renowned for his subtleties and underplaying of a role, he makes a mealy-mouthed Southern ogre out of goon shop-steward Burrell, starting out way over his colleagues’ heads and then just rising ever higher as the film progresses. Just what is going on with that accent? There must be some sort of war being waged inside his mouth, because there are at least four different voices struggling to be heard each time he opens it. With that ridiculously hammy performance as the Devil almost ruining the Keanu Reeves’ supernatural adaptation of Constantine, and similarly off-putting turns in The Brothers Grimm, The Lost World and the more recent Hansel & Gretel, we already understand that he can gleefully go over the top and simply refuse to come back down again, and you should prepare yourself for his preposterous performance here. His accent really, truly grates on the nerves and makes the teeth itch. Just listen to his delivery of the line “Time for a turkey-shoot,” and try not to shudder with a brace of the all-over fidgets. He is a big bad letdown as far as I am concerned ... and, man, doesn’t he look like he could be comedian Russell Kane’s dad????
Much better is Luis Guzman who has provided excellent support work in a vast slew of gritty thrillers and dramas, and gets to wield a Tommy-gun and strut down the main street blazing away with it like Clint Eastwood or Al Capone. As Deputy Figgy, he has just enough depth to make his token Mexican richly nuanced with both an attitude and a great comic turn in the face of danger. Taciturn character-actor Harry Dean Stanton also appears – but pay attention ‘cause he ain’t in it for long – in yet another in a long line of brief cameos, and there is also action movie demigod, Sonny Landham – yep, Billy from Predator - adding some geriatric beef to the pot.
You know what? I had already written three paragraphs of this review before I’d watched the movie at home on Blu. But I was basing that write-up on my cinematic observations and opinions, and I have since tossed them out. Because seeing it now a couple of times on disc has revealed a hidden level of entertainment value that I was, perhaps, too swift to overlook. For sure, this is very darn far from the Schwarzenegger that we would probably want to see and, in truth, pretty lacklustre in the category frequently titled High Octane. Yet there is an underlying current of good-natured fun coursing through this slapdash affair that makes it not just wonderful to see Arnie packing heat and dropping zingers at his own expense, but highly engaging as an ensemble piece. Its combination of ultra bloody violence really doesn’t sit well beside the surprisingly laidback tone and jovial camaraderie, making for an unusual pick ‘n’ mix in terms of character and visual style. But, in a real turn up for the books as far as an action movie is concerned, it is the characters that make the damn thing work so well. At first I thought the small town ensemble to be as lame and disposable as the gaggle of off-the-peg goons opposed to them, and yet they have grown considerably on me.
“You f*cked-up my car!”
“You f*cked-up my day off!”
It’s High Noon meets Northern Exposure meets Fast and Furious, and that it all comes off like some lazy Saturday afternoon matinee shouldn’t be a surprise. Arnie’s comeback game-plan is the crucial component baking-away behind-the-scenes in the Arizona sun, and this is merely a vehicle to prep him for bigger things to come. As a lightweight actioner, it is more than passable but, at the end of the day, eminently forgettable, and as a stepping-stone for the Governator’s return, it yields a little bit of promise. Arnie’s charisma is undeniable and he is backed by a dependable roster of hapless clowns, but the story is really stupid and nothing more than a clutch of ideas loosely strung around the big guy’s stalwart return.
Yet, funnily enough, as I have already implied I wasn’t all that impressed with it when I first saw it at the flicks, but I have found it far more entertaining and even endearing on home video.
I cannot award it more than 6 out of 10, but this is still enjoyable hokum. And obviously a “must” for Arnie-fans.
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